Forty-five years ago on March 8, the first U.S. combat troops landed in Vietnam. Women carrying flowers waded into the surf to greet the Marines. The next 10 years would be less hospitable. There is another, lesser-known story of Americans in Vietnam: the civilians who were there before the soldiers came.
In the 1950s and early '60s, when we had only military advisers in country, hundreds of Americans worked in the villages of Vietnam. Some were intelligence operatives, like Graham Greene's Alden Pyle in the Quiet American.
Others were cement-and-fertilizer men with the U.S. Agency for International Development. Dozens of faith-based, family-assistance and medical organizations also fielded staff. All were part of a massive civilian aid effort aligned with U.S. Government policy. These noncombatants represented us as much as the soldiers, sailors and Marines sent in our name. They, too, served at the risk of their lives. Many of them died.
Now we are facing a protracted war in Afghanistan. Due to the nature of warfare in the modern era, civilian deaths far outnumber those of soldiers. General Stanley McCrystal, setting a new precedent, has apologized for the loss of innocent Afghan lives. Americans are also on the line, as a "surge" of U.S. government employees has been posted to Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to Secretary of State Clinton, "Our civilian engagement [there] will endure long after our combat troops come home."
On this anniversary of the Marines' landing in Vietnam, many of us will think about the wall in Washington. Many will reflect, too, on the civilians -- theirs and ours, yesterday and today. To remember them all is to affirm that every life counts. It is one step toward abolishing the idea that war's toll on the human family is in any way cheap.